Friday, August 31, 2012

Bad News Blues

As I work on this week's post, we are awaiting landfall of Hurricane Isaac.  Though we live a couple of hundred miles from where it will make land, we know from experience that sometimes that's not nearly far enough away, due to the accompanying winds and rain.  Since we've basically done all the preparations that we're able to do, in case of power outages and such, there's really nothing left to do but wait.

Blues musicians have been writing and singing songs about catastrophes of all kinds since the genre got its start.  This has been a common thing in the blues, and other genres, since the beginning of time.  Back before there were newspapers, televisions, the internet, and even radio for some families, songs like these were sometimes the only way that many people got to hear about current events, good and bad, all over the world, from floods to earthquakes to tornadoes to the assassinations of U.S. Presidents and Civil Rights leaders.  This week, Friday Blues Fix will take a look at a few of these from the early recording days and a couple of modern blues tunes that have helped keep the tradition alive.  We will revisit this topic more extensively at a later date.

Charley Patton
In 1929, the great Charley Patton wrote and performed "High Water Everywhere," a song about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that devastated parts of Louisiana, for Paramount Records.  This two-part epic is considered by many blues scholars to be Patton's best work.  The diminutive (5'5", 135 lbs.) Patton was a major influence, as a singer and guitarist, on scores of blues artists such as Son House, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and, most notably, Howlin' Wolf.  Sadly, Patton recorded for Paramount Records, and the sides that have survived, like most other Paramount recordings, have pretty bad sound, so most of the time today, modern listeners might have difficulty hearing and understanding what made Patton such a legend.   The recordings on these two videos have been cleaned up somewhat, thanks to modern technology.

Howlin' Wolf
Speaking of Howlin' Wolf, in the mid 50's, he immortalized the tragic story of the Rhythm Club in Natchez, MS.  In 1940, the corrugated tin building was packed full of blues lovers who had gathered to hear the Chicago band, Walter Barnes and his Sophisticated Swing Orchestra.  To give the club some atmosphere, the owner had spread Spanish Moss in the rafters, spraying it with a flammable insecticide to keep the bugs out.  Most of the doors and windows had been locked or nailed shut to keep party crashers out (admission was fifty cents), so the only way in and out was through the front door.  During the festivities, someone flipped a cigarette and the building caught fire, spreading quickly through the moss hanging in the rafters.  Barnes, a Vicksburg native, and his band were among the 209 people who died in the fire.  Howlin' Wolf recorded the song paying tribute to the club, "The Natchez Burning," in 1956.

In 2009, Big Jack Johnson released his final CD, Katrina.  The title track was very much in the tradition of earlier songs about catastrophic weather events.  An event as bad as Hurricane Katrina was bound to inspire some music.  About fifteen years earlier, Johnson had penned "Ice Storm Blues (Parts 1 & 2)," a vivid tune about the Great Ice Storm of 1994, which really hit the Mississippi Delta hard.  Though Johnson's music never stopped evolving, he always kept an eye on the traditions of the past, so he recorded several songs about current events and tragic happenings during his career.

Hopefully, this is a tradition that will continue in the blues.  While it's not as necessary for listeners today, information-wise, the descriptiveness and imagery of these types of songs sometimes gives us the feeling of actually being there.

No comments: